07.27.11

How 'Project Runway' Made it Work

After switching networks, the onetime cultural phenomenon crashed. But remarkably, last season, producers fixed it. Andy Dehnart on the fashion show’s return from the dead.

Heidi Klum has reminded viewers since Project Runway’s first season that “in fashion, one day you’re in, and the next you’re out.” That’s also true of the TV show, on which fashion designers compete to present their clothing at Fashion Week.

Project Runway returns for its ninth season tonight now firmly back “in.” The show established a new reality-television subgenre when it debuted on Bravo in 2004: that is, talented professionals competing, and pushing their skills and craft to the limits in challenges judged by well-known people in the given industry. It became a pop-culture phenomenon—an incredible achievement for a show about sewing clothes. Before its fifth season aired, however, a well-publicized legal battle derailed the series. The show’s owners moved it from Bravo to Lifetime; the production company that created it, Magical Elves, quit; and the producers best known for The Real World, Bunim-Murray, took over. Bravo later created a knockoff, The Fashion Show, which never really worked despite a makeover between its first and second seasons; that attempt to re-create the original continues this year, as NBC has teamed with Magical Elves for a midseason show, Fashion Star, which sounds very, very familiar.

When season six of Project Runway finally debuted on Lifetime, it seemed like rolled-up, acid-wash jeans on Donald Trump: it just didn’t work. Set in Los Angeles instead of New York City, it had uninspired challenges, very little of judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, and many other problems.

But something happened last season, the show’s eighth: Project Runway started to resemble its former self, featuring strong personalities and a controversial finish. Viewers who had abandoned the show returned.

As Nina Garcia, Marie Claire’s fashion director, who has been a judge since the show’s first season, told me, “When we left Bravo, it was like starting from scratch” from a production standpoint. “It had some growing pains. Now I think it’s really good.”

Some of its new features even improved upon the original. Besides minor but significant changes—refined sets; a Steadicam on the runway to follow the models as they show off the designers’ work—there were longer, 90-minute episodes. In an era of bloated reality shows that drag out an hour’s worth of content over two hours (NBC’s The Biggest Loser is the biggest offender), the new Runway added time in the right places. 

Executive producer Jon Murray told me the expanded episodes “gave us the time to tell a better story” because “it allowed us to open up what was going on beyond those format elements.” There was more time to show designers imagining and constructing garments under extreme time constraints. Tim Gunn came back from being a catchphrase robot to a thoughtful mentor offering informed critiques of work in progress. The judges’ deliberations went into greater detail, so their rationales made more sense. Sometimes small moments, like a designer’s laugh during an interview, were held for an extra beat. Mostly, we got more of what made the show so compelling to begin with.

This season will see some other changes and firsts, including a public, outdoor runway challenge. A casting special will precede the season premiere tonight, on which 20 designers will have their final audition, trying to persuade the judges to let them compete this season.

That represents a significant behind-the-scenes change: In the past, judges just saw contestants’ portfolios, and knew little about them beyond that. This year, Garcia told me, “we got to speak to them, we got to look at their clothes, we got to touch their clothes, we got to find out where they were from, what they had done, what kind of experience they had. So that’s what made a difference.” She added, “I feel closer to these designers. I know their backgrounds. I’m not finding out their backgrounds sitting at home, which is what used to happen.”

Executive producer Sara Rea said that process in the first episode resulted in “judges immediately vying for certain people,” adding new weight to the judging process. Jon Murray said that “throughout the season, Michael or Nina or Heidi would reference that first collection and what their hopes were for someone” while critiquing the designer's work on a challenge, and that “makes for an even more powerful journey.”

That’s what makes absorbing television: true stories unfolding like fictional ones.

Those journeys do matter, because that’s what makes absorbing television: true stories unfolding like fictional ones. Last season worked in part because its collection of talented designers also had strong personalities. Garcia told me that “there was a difference” in casting Lifetime’s first season, but that starting with season eight, casting was "taken more seriously,” and the show ended up with a group that was “more qualified … I think the standards were raised.” She said, “The talent has to be there—the personalities are going to come with the talent.”

That definitely happened last fall. Standouts included Mondo Guerra, the quiet, unassuming designer who grew into a fan favorite, especially after he emotionally confessed his HIV-positive status during a challenge. There was also Gretchen Jones, the perfect reality-TV villain who stabbed her fellow competitors in the back and face. (After a group challenge, even Tim Gunn couldn’t contain himself, reaming the losers for letting themselves be bullied by Gretchen.)

When Gretchen won, beating Mondo after a heated discussion between the judges, some fans expressed dismay, insisting they’d never watch again. But that kind of empty threat is nothing new in reality TV, and in particular it’s what’s so great about competitions among people who have a craft: It’s the work that matters, not their personalities. A show that’s simply a popularity contest might not have had that kind of spectacular ending had Gretchen been voted off early or played nice. (Sara Rea said that, incredibly, producers had thought before filming that Gretchen might be “mediocre” and simply “fade into the background.”)

Passionate arguments from the judges about who they like and who they don’t will continue, especially now that the show has more time for deliberations. Murray said that “we just told the judges to go for it” and “if you have a case to make, don’t be afraid to say it. We reached some real standoffs.” The extra time allows the viewers to see “a lot more of the passion that the judges have.” That’s true for Tim Gunn, too: “We’re not going to stop him from expressing his passionate thoughts,” Murray said. (Last season, that extended to criticism of the production, which Gunn posted online and later removed.)

Choosing Gretchen “was still the right decision,” Garcia said, citing her more modern runway show. As to the judges’ criteria—the final decision often seems to hinge on how wearable and sellable the clothes are, versus how creative the collection is—Garcia said it’s not a choice between one and the other: “I think you have to have both.”

And Project Runway does, going into its ninth season having succeeded last fall with both the idea and the execution.